I can’t remember the first time I met Michael Smith. I just remember feeling better about anything and everything after I did, that big smile and hearty laugh a perfect cure for anything that was ailing you.
But I vividly remember the first time he spiced up a sports column I was working on. It was Sunday afternoon, September 29, 2013. I was covering an Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field. Smith was a press box security guard. As I walked into the press box that day, Smith was grinning ear-to-ear.
“My feet haven’t touched ground for two hours,” beamed the 1967 graduate of Red Bank High School.
“That man did more damage to that program than anyone who’s ever coached there.”
That man was Lane Kiffin, the former head football coach of Smith’s beloved University of Tennessee Volunteers football team. Kiffin, you may recall, coached the Big Orange for one season in 2009, then headed to the Left Coast for the Southern Cal job.
UT fans never got over it, and around 3 a.m. that Sept. 29 morning _ Pacific Daylight Time_ word leaked out of LA that Southern Cal athletic director Pat Hayden had met Kiffin on the LAX tarmac following an embarrassing loss at Arizona State and fired him.
In Big Orange Country and for Volniacs everywhere, including Smith, it was reason to celebrate and levitate.
But encountering Smith, who divided his time between his native Chattanooga and Fayetteville, Ga., with his lovely wife Jackie, was always a reason to celebrate life. A career peace officer, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a master’s from UT-Knoxville. He loved the Mocs and the Vols and the Braves, for whom he worked security on game days for 20 years.
Last Tuesday, Sept. 26, we lost Smith to the angels at the too young age of 73. He fought heart issues for years, perhaps because his heart always seemed so large.
For instance, the last time I saw him last summer at Truist Park, someone commented on how friendly he always was to folks entering the press box, even on those times he had to ask them to leave because they weren’t properly credentialed.
Replied Smith with his usual smile, “We are security officers, but we’re also about community relations. We want to make people feel welcome when they come here.”
The Braves broadcasting team all seemed to love Smith. Chip Caray would chat him up. Glavine and Smoltz, too, as well as Jeff Francoeur. There was probably a reason he was the first face you saw when you walked through the press box door. It was impossible not to have a good day when Smith greeted you.
My last column that mentioned Smith came last summer when he was showing off his 2021 World Series ring that the Braves brass gave out to more than 500 full and part-time employees.
It wasn’t the same $50,000 ring the players and coaches and top front office staff received, but it was real gold, had the Braves “A” on the top made out of diamonds and at first glance looked remarkably like it’s far more expensive brother.
Even Jackie said of Mike’s ring the first time he showed it to her: “I like yours better than the one the players got.”
Said Smith of the Braves’ generosity: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the finest professional sports organization in the world.”
If these playoffs end the way they did in 2021, a new ring will be designed for the Braves. It will probably be even more glorious and expensive than the 2021 ring because bigger and better, or at least bigger, is the way sports franchises do things these days.
And should the Braves win it all, I have a wish of my own I hope they’ll consider. I hope they’ll send whatever version of a world championship ring they produce for employees such as Smith to Jackie, with the following words engraved on the inside of the band: “To the finest press box security guard in the world.”